What I learned during the holidays (about user experience, digital publishing and all that)

I don’t know about you, but I find the Christmas break offers a great time to reflect. As I spend most of this holiday time at home and with friends and family, it offers a unique break in my daily routine and valuable time spent at home.

I try to get work off my mind during this time, but my interest in digital communication and the way it changes peoples’ behaviour makes it a great chance to ponder what’s happened in the last 12 months.

So, this year I’m not going to attempt any predictions for 2011 – there are plenty of those around. Instead, here are a few things that occurred to me during the Christmas break in 2010.

Computers are nowhere near easy to use yet

An elderly family member who has limited experience using computers asked me to help him set up a new laptop running Windows, a printer, and a connection to a new cable broadband account. Pretty straightforward, right?

Er, no.

Seeing this situation through a new user’s eyes is incredibly illuminating.

For a start, there’s an overwhelming amount of information to deal with. My relative was asking me a dizzying number of questions, all of them totally reasonable and far from intuitive: would I like to use Bing as my default search engine? What is a McAfee tool bar? How can I go quickly to my web-based email online? Where are all the programs that I had on the desktop of my computer at work?

We are a long way from the ideal of a computer that you can just turn on and use.

This helped me to understand two of the very recent trends in 2010 that are clearly attempts to move towards this goal: tablet computers and the Google Chrome operating system – more on these below.

Tablet computers are ace

I showed the same relative (see above) my iPad, and the ease with which he got into using it comfortably was pretty astounding. Okay, so it’s a bit of an unfair comparison as I’d already set my iPad up to work online, downloaded all the relevant apps, etc. But it was clear that the tablet form factor works so much better for casual computer users.

I also found my own usage of the iPad a bit of a revelation. I’ve had mine since April 2010, and I’ve been using it pretty solidly since then, mainly for working on the move.

But this Christmas I saw the iPad in a new light. For the first time the whole family got to use it (yes I’ve been a bit stingy in sharing it with the kids before now). It was a major hit.

For light computing around the home it’s just fabulous. Using Facebook, checking for emails, looking up information online, keeping up with the TV schedule, reading books to my children, browsing YouTube clips, playing games – for all of these things it’s the perfect device, so much easier and more convenient than the laptop. No wonder analysts are predicting big sales in 2011.

Magazine and newspaper apps aren’t there yet

With all the family’s iPad usage, we rarely used newspaper or magazine apps to find information. I’ve tried most of them, and they’re often clunky, hard to navigate and limited in interactivity.

When we want information we go to the browser and find it on the web, or use specialised apps where relevant.

This must be why the numbers have been dropping off so drastically.

Apps that we did find useful include: TV Guide, book readers (iBooks and Kindle), YouTube videos, social media clients (Flipboard and Twitter – still waiting for a Facebook iPad app), the Marvel comic book reader (the boy and I are loving the Red Hulk mini-series), RSS reader, content aggregation, games and reference apps (the Art Authority app is an awesome use of iPad capability).

Conclusion – media apps need to get more innovative if they want my attention in 2011.

I need online storage

Just before the holidays the hard drive in my MacBook went down. That’s okay, I thought, I’ve been backing up regularly to an external drive. Except, three days later, that went down too (I’m told it’s rare for both to go down so close together, but that’s little consolation).

Fortunately I had moved most of my files to a new internal drive before the backup broke. But not all of it. I’ve lost some personal family videos, some music, and a few other bits and pieces. Not a disaster, then, but it could have been a lot worse.

This year I’ll do what I’ve been meaning to do for ages – I’ll get myself some external backup. SugarSync and Carbonite both look like good options.

The future is (at least partly) in the cloud

I’ve been following the arguments throughout 2010 for the move to the cloud, but until now I’ve not been convinced. Like others I have reservations about committing everything to cloud-based services.

So when Google pilot tested the chrome operating system running on a netbook-style computer at the end of last year, I (like many others) wondered who on earth would use such a device. As many have said, if I can get the Chrome browser and much more besides on a standard laptop, why limit yourself?

The experiences described above have changed my view.

Firstly, my hard drive disaster. Due to the fault in my backup drive, I had to manually re-set up my entire system (if it had been working properly I could have used time machine to reinstall everything to its previous state – but it wasn’t, so I couldn’t.

Re-configuring a computer system is a pain in the ass. I had to dig out library files from system directories, reconfigure browser settings, redefine default files on frequently used software, and much more.

Even now it’s not back to how it used to be. To give one example, I have 120GB of music, and although I managed to save most of it, it didn’t port the metadata. So all those years spent rating songs and measuring play counts to help me list my favourite music have been wasted. That’s what you get for being geeky!

Suddenly, in a flash, I see the benefits of the Chrome OS. Imagine that all I had to do when my hard drive went down was to get a new laptop, fire up Google Chrome, and sign in to my Google account. Everything’s there, just as I left it. No new set up, no re-configuration, no updating software, no ongoing headaches.

As one Google engineer puts it ‘Setting up a new machine takes less than a minute.’ This brings the computer closer to the TV experience – just turn it on and it works.

I can also see how this approach can help the day-to-day user experience, especially for my elderly relative (see above). The simplicity of using one browser as the centre of the computing experience, and accessing cloud services as applications makes total sense.

My predictions for 2011

Okay, I lied. I can’t resist making a few predictions. So here are four based purely on the personal experiences listed above. This is what I think the end of 2011 will look like:

1. Tablets will be heading towards the mainstream. Within another two years they will be more frequently used as home computing devices than desktops or laptops.

2. Cloud computing will take off for real. Google will sell extremely cheap Chrome OS laptops (less than £100 in the UK). Some carriers will give them away free with contracts.

3. There will be a small but significant bunch of exciting and innovative tablet and smartphone apps from one or two savvy media companies. And the best ones won’t look like magazines and newspapers with videos inserted in them.

4. Something entirely unpredictable will happen. This time last year the iPad and Google’s Chrome OS weren’t even announced. It was another astonishing year of change, and 2011 looks set to be no different. I for one can’t wait to see what’s in store.

Here’s to a happy digital new year!